This American Life

Yesterday I completed a years long journey backward in time. My friend Jenn recommended that I check out the podcast of This American Life back in 2012. I checked it out a few months later during summer vacation and then began listening to it regularly during my commutes to work which involved walking and riding the C-train.

When the app came out, I was able to begin delving into older episodes and I found myself methodically working backwards through time at a rate of about 4.5 years per year – so, not too far off a presidential term per school year. It was amusing hearing commentary or stories on possible party nominees or the anticipation before elections. Striking was the similarities in how the narrative never really changed in politics. Republicans reluctant to support Bob Dole are talking negatively about Clinton (Bill) in 1996 in the same way Republicans in 2016 reluctant to support Donald Trump are talking negatively about Clinton (Hillary) – and the same sentiments could be seen about Bush Jr., John Kerry, etc.

What I love most about this program is its respect for every subject of every story. You hear from polygamists and homeless people, 5 year olds and transgendered people, Hispanics and Iraqis, celebrity comedians and farmers, conmen and billionaires. When the storyteller has a bias against their subject, they tell us – like the one on prayer when Alix Spiegel, an atheist, does a story on a mega-church in Colorado. They let the subjects tell the story and the storytellers make it clear when their own interpretation is being expressed. In other words – very professional.

The internet becomes a character in the program when early on they say they respond to all emails. They stop offering cassette tapes of the program eventually and move to CDs and then to podcasts. In the late 90’s, Ira Glass has to explain chat rooms and message boards. Things have progressed to where you can share clips of episodes on Twitter and Facebook.

Your Radio Playhouse? This American Life only became the moniker at episode 17, replacing Your Radio Playhouse. The only constant that we get to hear is Ira Glass and his growth as a producer and host is spectacular. While working backwards, I would listen to current episodes as they came out. So one day I might listen to an episode about what it’s like to live on a huge aircraft carrier during the gulf war and the next it’s about Syrian Refugees. I noticed that Ira Glass finds himself less amusing 22 years after the launch of his radio show. Funnily, his confidence seems higher in the earlier episodes, but this also indicates the very admirable maturation in the host over the decades as humility becomes more of his ethos.

The staff and contributors change slowly. Nancy Updike has been the only other constant since the beginning, but regular contributors David Sedaris, Sarah Vowell, the late David Rakoff, Jonathan Goldstein, Starlee Kine, Miki Meek, Scott Carrier etc. kept some continuity in the program despite the varied topics.

A small sample of my favourite segments through the years – far too many to recall:

  • Episode 520: Calgary native talks about a song on TV that made him proud to be Calgarian, but then finds out the song was duplicated in dozens of  North American cities.
  • Episode 214: David Sedaris travels with Stadium Pal – a bag strapped to his calf into which he can discretely urinate through a tube. I died.
  • Episodes 486-487: This two part series on life at Harper High School in Chicago was heartbreaking for this teacher who teaches upper/middle class kids in Calgary.
  • Episode 65: Funny episode about Canadians.
  • Episode 380: When a couple cops respond to a call where a squirrel is in the attic, but then all hell breaks loose.
  • Episode 465: The story of the massacre at Dos Erres, Guatemala.
  • Episode 625: Story of the two first black students at a privileged white boarding school in the south in 1967 – especially the part about one of them at home.
  • Episode 223: Heartbreaking interview with a man who has been unemployed for 5 years.
  • Episode 193: Genevieve Jurgensen’s heartbreaking story of life after losing her two young daughters in a car accident.
  • Episode 494: Andrew Forsthoefel’s beautiful (though abridged) account of walking from Philadelphia to California.
  • Episode 235: Sarah Vowell’s account of USA interference in Cuba’s liberation from Spain and that fraud T. Roosevelt.
  • Episode 599: Seriously, Sara Bareilles’s amazing original song using Obama’s perspective. The other songs in Episode 600 are fabulous too.
  • Episode 107: The Trail of Tears episode is heartbreaking – Sarah Vowell is fantastic in her reporting on history, much more than her reporting on music in my opinion.

I was surprised when I heard my first episodes dating back to early 1997 when there was no funny comment about Torey Malatia, the original boss who eventually left This American Life. As a hook to listen to the credits at the end each program, they put words from the program in Mr. Malatia’s mouth in some hilarious context.

The show is still putting out great content. I look forward to moving forward from now on with episodes 627+.

Finally, if this is ever read by the staff at This American Life:

Thank you.
You’ve enriched my life.
You’ve given voice to the disenfranchised.
You’ve called out injustice.
You’ve celebrated the beautiful and good.
You’ve been honest and humble and heartfelt and funny.

And thanks to the members of WBEZ and the sponsors for keeping this program on the air.

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